Retro-review: ‘The Ethereal Mirror’ by Cathedral

“Well hey, what do you have say?/Well, I say we’re going to ride/So come on!”

Those lines kick off and sum up Cathedral’s 1993 album The Ethereal Mirror, which will definitely take the listener on a ride through sound.

It is one of many albums I took a chance on based on reviews I had read in a now-defunct magazine called Metal Maniacs.

Some of those albums I bought didn’t click and are now collecting dust somewhere. Those albums include Screams and Whispers by Anacrusis and Earth vs. the Wildhearts by the Wildhearts.

Others have become my favorite albums.

One of those albums I bought based solely on a review, The Ethereal Mirror, is one of the latter. I still consistently listen to the songs from the album today. When I don’t listen, they’re often playing in my head on my internal jukebox.

The Ethereal Mirror is a very special album. Sure, it wasn’t a million-selling breakthrough and you didn’t see Cathedral showing up at the Video Music Awards on MTV. Despite that lack of public awareness, it has probably been more influential on doom metal than any album that doesn’t say “Black Sabbath” on it.

It’s not to say that Cathedral created doom metal. Bands like Trouble and Saint Vitus had been doing it for a decade. This is not counting Black Sabbath, the inspiration for them all. What Cathedral did in 1993 was take the framework provided by those earlier bands and break past their boundaries, something they already pushed with their first album Forest of Equilibrium.

Cathedral just didn’t put together an album here. Much like Faith No More with Angel Dust the prior year, they gave the listener an experience. The music they made wasn’t just made for your ears. It engaged your mind and your soul, so to speak. Listening to The Ethereal Mirror, is like taking a journey of sorts. It’s both fun and harrowing to listen to at different points, and it’s never boring.

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Front and center for Cathedral is former Napalm Death vocalist Lee Dorrian. As the focus of the band, Dorrian was both a showman, with his “oooos,” “yeahs” and handclaps that are sprinkled throughout the album. Instead of the guttural growls from his time with Napalm Death, Dorrian uses a sort of yelp as his primary vocalization in Cathedral. Breaking up the yelps are clean vocals and the occasional growl here and there. His talent for adapting his vocals to the needs of the song is up there with vocalists like Mike Patton and Rob Halford.

The driving force instrumentally are the guitars of Garry “Gaz” Jennings and Adam Lehan. Jennings and Dorrian would be the only two members to stay in Cathedral during the whole span of its existence. All of the songs, save “Enter the Worms” bear Jennings name as one of, if not the only, writer along with Dorrian.

Lehan and Jennings, who also plays bass, create a solid crushing sound through most of the album. Working together, the two create a sound that’s akin to carrying a sackful of rocks on your back which some jerk adding additional rocks to as you try to get where you’re going, which is probably uphill. Melody wise, their guitars go from groovy to almost nightmarish, staying within a range that doesn’t shriek and doesn’t drop too low.

The band is rounded out by drummer Mark Ramsey, who was in the band Acid Reign with Jennings and Lehan. If I were to describe the sound of the drums on this album, I’d say “heavy weight.” That’s “weight” as in weight and “heavy” as in it’s a big thud in your ears. His bass drum has boom and that helps keep the rhythm grounded throughout. The sound of the drums fits the music, with the sound of the snare pounding and the cymbals flowing.

Also contributing to the writing of three songs is the album’s producer, David Bianco.

The Ethereal Mirror and its preceding EP Soul Sacrifice, were part of a series of albums released under a deal between Columbia and Earache Records. Cathedral, along with label mates Carcass, Napalm Death and Entombed, would have albums licensed and distributed by Colombia in the U.S. under the deal. When the deal expired, the rights would go back to Earache. Of course, neither doom nor death metal broke through to the mainstream in the U.S. so Colombia let the rights return.

With all that background nonsense out of the way, let’s look at what’s important: The album itself.

The album

When I said that The Ethereal Mirror is like a journey, I’m being serious.

The opening track “The Violet Vortex” is sort of like stepping into a portal that transports you to the alternate reality where the hippies, grim reapers and medieval knights intermingle freely in a graveyard under a pulsating sunless sky. It starts out watery and, yes, ethereally and works its way to a crushing climax, dragging your ear to a place that it’s still apprehensive about going.

“The Violet Vortex” leads you to “Ride,” the song that had the lyrics kicking off this review. It’s a groovy tune that was the first single off the album. This catchy song gives you just a taste of what Cathedral has to offer the rest of the way through the journey, though, it will turn much, much darker as the album goes on.

Midnight Mountain,” another single from the album, runs in the same vein as “Ride” with its uptempo groove, but it takes what “Ride” does and gives it a good dose of flower power creating a heavy, strange and wonderful song with handclaps throughout. The video is pretty crazy too.

In contrast to “Ride” and “Midnight Mountain” there are heavy and downright merciless songs like “Enter the Worms” and “Grim Luxuria” that are just scary at times. Along with “Ashes You Leave,” these songs make up what are probably the three “most metal” songs on the album. They’re all good, but like I said, they don’t show any pity for the faint of heart when it comes to pulling punches. They’re grim songs made even more so by their heaviness.

Joining those three songs I mentioned in the prior paragraph is “Jaded Entity,” one of my favorite tracks from the album. Like the others, it’s pretty unforgiving and not for people who are prone to being depressed. This is a slow and heavy number which (I think) is about some sort of lonely being wallowing in its own sadness. Dorrian’s vocals are at their best on this album, his roars catching the essence of the being’s pained emotional state.

A couple of the songs are just plain weird.

The first strange one if “Fountain of Innocence.” Like “Violet Vortex” there’s an ethereal guitar thing going here, albeit electro-acoustically, which creates a trippy vibe, made trippier by Dorrian’s also ethereal and liquidy sounding vocals. These ethereal parts stand in contrast to other parts that match the heavier segments of the album with Dorrian roaring his head off. One of my favorites on the album.

The other strange one is “Phantasmagoria” the longest track on the album. The song is about an acid trip gone bad and man, it sure sounds like it. It’s heavy and slow, leaving you feeling like you’re walking through a noisy haze in a very small hallway. It’s also one of my personal favorite tracks. 

Things end acoustically with “Imprisoned in Flesh.” Some reviewers thought this 1:47 song was unnecessary, but I would disagree. It’s sort of like the end of the journey, when one passes face down on a bed of some sort. It’s a nice cool off from the intense experience of the songs that came before it, particularly “Phantasmagoria,” “Ashes You Leave” and “Jaded Entity,” which are all back to back with each other.

I would be remiss not to mention the production. Bianco did a great job with it, giving it a clear, but not too clean, sound. You can hear all parts of the band, though the bass guitar seems to be almost unnoticeable in some places.

The verdict

So, is this an album I would still buy 25 years later?

After the reading this review, do you have any doubt?

The Ethereal Mirror is one of the greatest metal albums of the 1990s, and if you asked me, of all time too … but that’s just me. I stopped bothering to rank what album is my favorite because that can change day to day, but I can say that this one without a doubt would be in my top three if I was forced to rank them.

Anyway, if you’ve never heard it, buy it. There’s no need to listen to it on YouTube. Trust me, it’s great.

 

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